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Sunday, November 13, 2022

Some Like It Hot

I saw Some Like It Hot too early to give it a full review, but I do have some comments. 


At first I was put off by the show. It's so energetic, and so enthusiastic, and so cheerful that it feels like an attack. But eventually I surrendered and embraced its hyperactive broad-stroke old-fashioned Broadway-ness. (It would have been a big hit in 1980.) 

Many of the songs are catchy and fun (though there too many of them). The ensemble work their collective butts off. The choreography is clunky. For example, there's a farce-type extended number that lacks logic and rhythm and ends up abrasive and annoying. However, the ensemble sells everything with that wonderful Broadway-triple-threat energy and skill. 

The main performances make or break a show like this, and Some Like It Hot features two kick-ass, star-making turns. Adrianna Hicks as Sugar and J. Harrison Ghee as Daphne have all the skills you could possibly ask for, topped with great charm and likeability. They are both consistently delightful. Christian Borle is ok; I don't think he is well-cast.

There has been some controversy in the chat rooms about this being a "woke" musical. "Woke" is often used judgmentally, so I don't want to go there. However, the way that the show embraces the existence of people of color and differing sexualities and identities is lovely

The show needs polish. I hope that they will use the rest of previews to fix the timing on one-liners (give them a moment to breathe!), balance the sound (50% of the lyrics are not intelligible!), trim the show, and dial the vibe down from 125% to, oh, 110%.

Some Like It Hot is not great. It is fun. And Ghee and Hicks are fabulous.


Wendy Caster

Friday, October 28, 2022

Carmen

Benjamin Franklin said that nothing is certain but death and taxes. However, he left out another important certainty: when MasterVoices puts on a show, it is always worth seeing.

Ginger Costa-Jackson
Photo: Erin Baiano

Carmen, which MasterVoices recently presented, is a case in point. Although a concert production, it was fully performed, with top-of-the-line soloists, the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke's, enough costumes to set the scene and the mood, dancers, and that fabulous 120+ person chorus. Ted Sperling, MasterVoices's artistic director and general all-round gift to New York, led a lucid, energetic performance of the original Paris Opera Comique, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. It was a truly delightful evening, except for one thing. And that thing is not the fault of MasterVoices--it's Carmen itself, going back to the novel by Prosper Mérimée. 

Carmen (beautifully sung and acted by Ginger Costa-Jackson) could not be more open about who she is and what she wants. She explains, clearly, that the most important thing to her is freedom. She adds, in paraphrase, "If you love me, I won't love you. If you don't love me, I might love you. If we love each other at the same time, boy, are you in trouble." This is not a woman who wants to settle down. So, as occurs in about a million books, operas, and shows, after Corporal Don José, madly in love with Carmen, cannot force her to "be true" to him, he calls her a whore and kills her. 

Yes, the piece is of its time. Yes, it's just a show. Yes, people are spending too much time focusing on trees rather than forests these days. I get it! But, the bottom line for me, and for the friend I saw the show with, is that, yet again, we see a woman killed for not being who a man wants her to be. And Carmen is a fabulous vibrant character. She kicks ass. I wish she had kicked Don José's. 

But it was a great production. 

It always frustrates me that MasterVoices performances come and go so quickly, and that I can't tell you in time to make sure to catch them. But, since it's pretty much certain that their upcoming shows will be at least worthwhile and possibly wonderful, click here to get more info and perhaps tickets for the rest of their season.

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

F*ck7thGrade

Jill Sobule's terrific autobiographical rock-concert musical, F*ck7thGrade, traces her life from tomboy riding a Raleigh Blue Chopper, to junior high outcast, to accidental performer in a nightclub in Spain, to closeted Tonight Show guest, to--right now--proud queer woman in a proud queer show at the fabulous Wild Project. 


It's a delightful trip, despite some dips into sadness and even despair. In many ways, Sobule's life pivoted around her hit "I Kissed a Girl." It was the nineties, and she succumbed to pressure to treat it as a "novelty song" rather than the lesbian anthem it is. In a way, she broke her own heart by not standing up for herself. 

But she also grew up, and embraced herself and her music. She is really funny (the excellent book is by Liza Birkenmeier, but the voice is sheer Sobule), and her songs are wonderful musical short stories. Most importantly, the show takes place in the sweet spot where the specifics of an artist's particular story expand into universality. Really, how many people enjoyed 7th grade? (If you did, by the way, you still would probably like the show. But you won't be in the majority in the audience.)

The show could use more of a transition between Sobule singing "I sold my soul, and nothing happened" and her response to Katy Perry's different "I Kissed a Girl." All we are told is that years passed, and that Sobule found herself feeling that, although she had somewhat disowned the song, she was the "I Kissed a Girl" girl! Also, F*ck7thGrade ends three times, and the last song is one song too many. (That last song shouldn't be played for anyone under 50, or even 60, with its list of potential--and realistic--ways the world may go to hell; I saw the show with a 28-year-old, and that's way too young to be told that it's okay if everything comes to an end because you've had a "good, good life.") 

Now that I've finished the "I'm a reviewer" part of the review, I need to add the "I'm a lesbian of Sobule's generation who has had her CDs for years" part of the review. For me, much of F*ck7thGrade felt like catching up with an old friend. When "I Kissed a Girl" came out, my friends and I were thrilled. I managed to tape the music video (on BetaMax!) from TV, and that tape was passed around to friend to friend to friend. We assumed that the enforced heterosexuality of the ending of the video (Sobule and the woman she kissed are shown pregnant by their loser men) was not Sobule's choice, and we had no doubt that Sobule was one of us. It's sad to hear how much pain the whole thing caused Sobule, because that song and that video were major gifts to the rest of us. Honestly, in 1995 the song felt miraculous. (I dealt with that awful, stupid, tagged-on ending by simply pressing "stop" before it came on.)

Even now, in 2022, movie, TV, and theatre characters that I can truly identify with are rare. Watching F*ck7thGrade gave me that unusual, wonderful sense of being seen, of being. That's a real gift.

The excellent back-up band/supporting cast includes Nina Camp (guitar, back-up vocals, "the sexy characters"), Kristen Ellis-Henderson (drums, Jill's junior high nemesis, other characters), and Julie Wolf (keyboards, various characters).   

The show runs through November 8. You can get tickets here. I hope you do.


Wendy Caster

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Leopoldstadt

Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard's newest play, and possibly his last, offers a journey through the life of a Jewish family in Vienna, from 1899 to the 1950s. They are well-off and mostly happy. Some have married non-Jews (Protestants, to be specific, although the matriarch of the clan persists in calling them "Papists"). While not specifically based on Stoppard's family, it is clearly an outgrowth of his later-in-life discovery that his mother was Jewish and that most of her relatives--most of his relatives--were killed in the Holocaust. 


Leopoldstadt may be Stoppard's wordiest play, and that is saying something. It may also be his least play-like play. In the majority of scenes, two people disagree about an issue involving the Jews. They argue their points, lading their conversation with a tremendous amount of history. Stoppard makes this remarkably compelling, particularly for a Jewish audience. (I am an ethnic, nonreligious Jew whose family came to the US well before World War II.) Few of the scenes feature action of any sort; they are the best in the play. 

Overall, Leopoldstadt is a history lesson, largely ignoring the admonition to show, not tell. But it's elegantly written by Stoppard, smoothly directed by Patrick Marber, and well-acted by a large cast. And the final scene brings the show home with power and emotion.

The show has been called a masterpiece, and I respectfully disagree. I don't think I'd even put it in the top five of Stoppard's plays. But, for all its flaws, it's a Stoppard play. With occasional sparks of his genius. And it's possibly his final play. That makes it a must-see in my book.

Wendy Caster

Sunday, September 25, 2022

King Charles III (movie review)

My friend and I were psyched to go to the play King Charles III on Broadway in 2016. We had read the rave reviews and heard the buzz. Come intermission, we looked at each other and said, pretty much at the same time, "What's the big deal?" and "It's good, but..." When the second act ended, we looked at each other and said, pretty much at the same time, "Now I understand," and "Wow!"


I didn't rush to see the movie version, which came out in 2017, because I didn't want to mess with my memories of the play, which was so damn good. But, more recently, I decided to watch it because

(1) Enough time had passed;

(2) The screenplay is by the playwright, Mike Bartlett; the movie is directed by Rupert Goold, who also directed the play; and most of the original Broadway performers are in the movie; and

(3) For some strange reason, King Charles III has been on my mind recently.

The movie is remarkable, every bit as good as the play, so much so that I'm linking to my original review, here. I would only add that Bartlett was so insightful as to be prescient. (If you watch the movie, and you should, keep in mind that the play first appeared in 2014.) I'll be fascinated to see how much life imitates art going forward.

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Broadway Revival (book review)

I remember learning in my teens that George Gershwin was only 38 when he died. I felt so sorry for him, but also for me. What music died with him? Gershwin had mentioned to a friend that he had a string quartet in his head, but hadn't had time to write it down. Heart-breaking!


Author Laura Frankos shares my sense of loss, as does the lead character of her entertaining novel, Broadway Revival. It is 2070, and David Greenbaum, in mourning for his late husband, starts obsessing about Gershwin. In David's world, the brain tumor that killed Gershwin could  be cured. And, as it happens, David's brother has access to a time machine. What if ... ?

Frankos's alternate history builds on her comprehensive understanding of the time period. The book is a great read, combining wish-fulfillment with smooth story-telling. If you care about Gershwin, or the American songbook, or musical theatre, or time travel, or alternate history, this book has much to offer you.

Wendy Caster

Friday, July 29, 2022

Into the Woods

Sometime right after the 9/11 bombings, I had a nightmare: I was doubled over with laughter in a comedy club, when a plane crashed through the roof. It was a pretty straightforward dream, borne of the sorrow, trauma and anxiety of the moment, but it also drove home how wracked with guilt I felt about missing joy as keenly as I did in the weeks following the attacks. Laughing didn't come easy in a stretch when the whole city was crazy with grief, and displays of mourning became briefly, unsettlingly common. I'd never seen as much public weeping before; I'd never been more aware of how inappropriate joy felt, or how deeply I craved it.  

I'm grateful that no one involved in the giddy, bubbly revival of Into the Woods gave in to guilt, trauma, grief or anxiety, or even the urge to refer in any way to the current state of things. I'm sure the temptation was there: fairytales perpetuate precisely because their broad strokes fit just about any cultural moment with ease, and we're mired in a pretty dark one to which most live productions have chosen at least a passing nod. Also, any musical that deigns to reflect the entirety of human existence, including the whole spectrum of emotions, practically demands at least a few moments of weight. Especially if said musical happens to be by an intensely loved and only recently deceased artist whose genius has been loudly reinforced for over a half-century. If there was ever a time during which Woods might lean into its characters' angsty disappointments, anxieties and heartbreaks, it'd be now. 

Then again, things were pretty bad during the Great Depression, but that didn't stop Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers from having the most delightful time gliding across some tastefully decorated ballroom. What makes this production similarly sublime is that it opts to be loose, broad, frothy and fun without ever cheapening the material. Audiences don't always need to reminded that they're traumatized, disillusioned, and sad. The characters in this production surely are too--they're us, after all--but they're also tough, adaptable, funny and thoroughly unwilling to let life's disappointments, crises, or even unspeakable tragedies get in their way. 

Swiftly, playfully directed by Lear DeBessonet, Into the Woods features a stellar cast of Broadway veterans, relative newcomers and some very endearing puppets. The actors lean almost consistently into life's pleasures: Julia Lester's voracious Little Red Ridinghood is most obvious (and hilarious) in this respect, but Patina Miller's Witch, for all her tsuris, does a bodily undulating dance whenever she hears Rapunzel's voice, and Sara Bareilles' headstrong and breezily independent Baker's Wife makes a lot more sense than she ever did: sure she loves her husband, but why not take a quick roll in the hay with a fatuous Prince (Gavin Creel) while your heart's still beating? 

The whole cast exudes joy and  makes Sondheim's complicated score sound as easy and as miraculous as breathing. I'm sure it helps to have an audience as adoring and as eager to be delighted as the one I saw the show with: just about every number threatened to bring the house down; a couple of entrances and exits did, too. A little girl danced energetically (and impressively quietly) up and down the far aisle through much of act II. I knew how she felt. 

So what if all the puppeteering, joking and lightheartedness results in a breezier, less emotionally impactful--or even clear--second act? I'm not sure exactly what was going on with the Witch's departure, and none of the characters grieve for more than a split second upon learning of the deaths of loved ones. No matter: We all know pretty damned well by this point that people don't always make it out of the woods. I'm certainly willing to trade a few muted moments for a consistent reminder that joy is like oxygen, that it's futile to feel guilt about seeking it out, and that a light touch can be a magical elixir for the weary, traumatized masses. That there can be moments of such unadulterated joy in the midst of so much awful is about as profound a reminder of why we soldier on in the first place. 

Go. Have fun; I hope you leave feeling a little lighter than you did when you walked in.  


Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sex, Grift, and Death

Caryl Churchill is a remarkable playwright. She's smart and funny and political and personal and humane and moving and very very entertaining. Reading her scripts reveals that she is also a great collaborator: for example, for a funeral scene in Here We Go, part of the excellent Sex, Grift, and Death at PTP/NYC, she wrote a bunch of little speeches, unattributed, allowing the director to choose who says them and in what order. (In the fabulous Love and Information, done by NYTW some years ago, Churchill provided only the dialogue--no characters, ages, genders, locations, or situations--for dozens of short pieces.) 

David Barlow, Tara Giordano
Hot Fudge
Photo: Stan Barouh

In another section of the exceptional Here We Go, Churchill provides the mere scaffolding of a play in a way that invites audience members to provide their own storylines and details. The resulting experience becomes extremely personal to each viewer. It is a tour de force of writing that consists of almost no writing. 

Churchill is fortunate to have director Cheryl Faraone as one of the major interpreters of her work in the United States. We in the audience are fortunate as well. Faraone meets Churchill full on, mining her humor and emotion and giving us productions full of texture and clarity, perfectly timed, beautifully acted. 

Danielle Skraastad
Photo: Stan Barouh

There are two Churchill works in Sex, Grift, and Death. The first, Hot Fudge, is a complete pleasure as it depicts a family of grifters whose daughter is discovering that honesty just might be a worthwhile option. Faraone has guided the excellent cast to perfectly calibrated, extremely funny performances. Particularly noteworthy are the fabulous Danielle Skraastad, whose every utterance has the audience hysterical, and Tara Giordano, who anchors the fun in reality. 

The other play, Here We Go, is about illness, dying, and death. It is in three parts; the first and third are discussed above. In the second part, the versatile David Barlow plays a dead man trying to suss out just what death is. It's funny and thought-provoking and amazingly imaginative. It genuinely makes a person think about the meaning of life.

Jackie Sanders, Bill Army
Lunch
Photo: Stan Barouh

There's a third play in Sex, Grift, and Death, called Lunch. Written by Steven Berkoff, it deals with the sex part of the evening's title. A woman sits on a bench near the ocean, seemingly waiting for something/someone. A man appears--is he the one she is waiting for? The rest of the play deals with the answer to that question as they chat and spar and flirt and jockey for position. Their interaction turns sexy, thoughtful, and ugly in turn, and then back again. They are not named in the written script--just Man and Woman--though they are named in the play itself. Are they supposed to represent all men and women? Is the play about the striving of humanity for connection--or just for something to happen? With its occasional references to TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the play clearly has something to say, but it is too wordy for a brief one-act; one would have to read it multiple times to digest what is going on.

Ultimately, Lunch is an interesting and often entertaining show, and it features some impressive writing. But to watch rather than read, it might benefit from some serious pruning. Bill Army and Jackie Sanders are both quite good (although Army could be slower and clearer in his long speeches). 

Overall, Sex, Grift, and Death is a real treat. Welcome back to in-person theatre PTP/NYC. You were missed! 

Wendy Caster